Monitors are often seen as a part of the PC equation that is not always as interesting as software or as regularly updated as processors, but in the last two decades there have been several steps forward that might not have been a revolution, but an evolution that benefited all computer users.
On the face of it, the story of the last two decades is a story that involves a move from monochrome to amber and green then to colour. Stages of development have also seen a movement from CRT to TFT and then beyond to plasma. The entry-level size has also been moving a couple of inches every few years.
A large number of monitor vendors have their headquarters in Korea or Taiwan, but there are expectations that the next couple of decades will include much more activity from the Chinese.
The other developments that should appear in the next few years are more widespread sales of TFT screens into corporate and home customers and price drops on plasma screens, making home cinema and wall screen televisions more common.
Bob Raikes, senior analyst at market research specialist Meko, details the advances in the last two decades and the scepticism that met each step of the evolutionary process.
"When I started, people asked why you would need graphics when most machines were just running monochrome text. Then people said why would you need colour? Why would you need high resolution? Who would want more than a 14in monitor?" he recalls.
"It doesn't matter what anyone says, a monitor is the interface between a computer and a person. Bob's second law [Raike's own theory] states that anything that increases the visual bandwidth will win in the end," he adds.
Dave Troughton, technical manager at NEC-Mitsubishi, believes it's possible to draw out three key dates in the last two decades that mark changing points in the monitor industry. The first is in 1984 when colour became available at a reasonable price; 1985 when Multi Sync was developed allowing users to use a monitor on multiple frequencies, and 1997 when LCD technology arrived.
Those breakthroughs are echoed by Dave Stevinson, managing director of GNR corporation, who adds that the end of fixed frequency monitors is also a breakthrough because it offers the chance to have a monitor offering different resolutions at different frequencies.
The history of monitors chimes in with other developments and starts in earnest with the launch of the PC in 1982, but the introduction of graphical user interfaces, first from Apple and then from Microsoft, also increases the desire for a good monitor to take advantage of those developments.
In the mid-80s, reductions in costs of PCs meant that more people could afford to buy computers and the demand for accompanying monitors increased. Things ticked over until the 90s and Windows, through its many guises, became the de facto standard with Windows 3.1 marking a turning point for the graphics industry and people doing things they never dreamed of before.
The need to buy a decent quality screen
Things progressed with the increasing power coming from graphics cards and the emergence of the Internet, providing users with even more need to buy a decent quality screen. The importance of graphic card developments have been there from the very early years of the 20 year review.
"When colour became available for a reasonable price in 1984, it was combined with developments in graphics cards with Hercules and with GUIs from Apple and Microsoft," says Troughton. "Colour could be used to play games and that's when it really took off."
Like most in the industry, he believes the immediate future includes more sales of LCDs because it is a practical answer for people looking for new screens. Prices have dropped considerably in the last few years and the ratio of difference between a CRT and a flat screen is narrowing all the time.
Stevinson recalls when CTX offered its first LCDs when he worked there in 1994 for £2,999. Now, a better quality monitor is retailing for £199 and the costs in plasma are also coming down.
Raikes believes there is still a long way to go in turning people away from fat and onto flat: "When I started 19 years ago everyone said they would have an LCD in five years, and that has been said at almost any point in the last 20 years. But worldwide only about 25 per cent of monitor sales are LCDs.
"People will have flat screens on their desks, but it is not going to be as rapid as they think. The high end and richer countries will move to LCD, but CRT is not out and will sell 90m units worldwide this year and will probably be selling 80m next year and 75m the year after," he adds.
The story of the last 20 years of monitors is a tale of small but important steps. Although industry experts concentrate on three of four key milestones, there have been advances on an almost annual basis.
That progress shows no sign of slowing down in the future as there are a range of technologies being readied for the market, including light emitting polymer screens, and next year there will be a range of Windows Powered Smart Displays that will be touch-sensitive and wireless communicating with the PC via 802.11b. Partners so far lined up for the technology are ViewSonic, Philips and Fujitsu Siemens.
Once compiled in the form of a 20-year timeline, the progress of monitors is a story that involves a series of leaps forward that should be of interest to all users, because a monitor is still the medium to view computer applications.
A portion of the companies that operate in the PC market also operate in the home television space and there should be more of a crossover there in the future.
A timeline for monitors starts when there is something to actually view and the arrival of personal computers from Apple in the late 70s and the IBM PC at the start of the 80s is when the story really takes off.
The launch of the PC in 1982 provides the world with a reason to want a monitor and alongside a number of vendors that have been operating in the television market since the 50s, there are some new entrants. To celebrate being one year old, CTX chooses this year to launch its operations in Europe.
ADI grabs the headlines in 1983 as it launches the first 14in monitor in Taiwan. A year later in 1984, Goldstar, which later becomes LG Electronics, starts its monitor operation in Gumi. Teco announces its first colour monitor in the same year. Mitsubishi launches a colour CRT display.
CTX is busy establishing itself with the launch of the EGA colour monitor in the US in 1985. At the same time, Eizo pitches its tent in Europe and starts selling its products in the UK. Mitsubishi NEC delivers a real breakthrough with its MultiSync technology that allows a monitor to receive multiple frequencies.
LG Electronics increases its monitor production to a 13-line operation in 1988. NEC Mitsubishi introduces a smart concept with the MultiCable Connection system, which means one cable will attach a monitor to both a Mac and a PC.
The invasion of foreign companies continues as Taiwanese manufacturer AOC sets up its European channel in 1989.
NEC Mitsubishi keeps up its inventive track record in 1991 with the launch of AccuColour-Control System, which means a user can adjust the colour on their screens.
Teco launches its 17in colour multi-sync in 1993. NEC Mitsubishi is at it again and delivers its OtiClear Screen, which has a glare-absorbing coating that reduces loss of focus or distortion.
NEC Mitsubishi relies again on the expertise and heritage both companies have built up in the monitor arena to deliver another stage of the CRT evolution in 1996 with its CromaClear technology improving the focus, brightness and contrast of a screen.
First LVD flat screen launch
The rise of digital television starts to attract the talents of LG Electronics and the firm develops a reception IC for digital television in 1997 and launches its first LCD flat screen. Meanwhile, Samsung proves that size does matter and releases a 30in TFT-LCD monitor. Teco, which introduces the Relisys monitor line into Europe, develops the Visual Flat Tube that allows a CRT to become a flat CRT.
1998 is a year of digital television developments with those vendors that have a foot in both monitor and television camps putting a lot of effort into delivering products to take advantage of digital television technology. Among those keeping its research labs busy is Samsung, which starts mass production of a digital TV.
Just a year and a half after working on its own digital TV technology, LG delivers the first Korean-type digital television in 1999. Elsewhere, CTX measures the amount of stock coming off its production lines and discovers it is shipping annually an estimated three million units. Yet to appear on everyone's desks, Samsung develops the 3D TFT-LCD monitor. Size matters again as LG sells a 40in plasma screen.
The last two years include signs of a consolidating market as LG Philips Displays is born in 2001 and the joint venture between NEC and Mitsubishi is unveiled in 2002. The World Cup is used as a selling platform by audio-visual specialists promoting monitors, plasma screens and projectors.
Leading UK distributors
Micro P - Established in 1980, it claims to be one of the longest running distributors with divisions covering printers, PCs, memory and storage
C2000 - Started life in the UK in 1983 as First Software then changed its name to Frontline Distribution in 1988 before becoming Computer 2000, which is owned by Tech Data
Ingram Micro - Handles a large number of vendors including CTX, NEC Mitsubishi, Sony and ViewSonic
Midwich - A dedicated trade-only distributor of computer-related products and peripherals, formed in 1986
This was first published in September 2002